As a counterpoint to my recent article on “Cinderella,” I’m pleased to present the following essay by my cherished colleague, Rob Walker of ChannelAwesome.com.
In a key scene in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” a Fairy Godmother transforms Cinderella’s mother’s dress into a sparkling blue ball gown. Like many scenes in the movie, it’s a profound technical achievement. The film, at least, bristles with stunning cinematography, gorgeous costume design, and vibrant direction. And yet, something seems “off.” The camera hovers over Cinderella with fetishistic intensity. On and on she goes, endlessly twirling with the sort of orgasmic ecstasy that would make Sailor Moon hang up her tiara for good. The scene drags on for an obnoxiously long time, making me wonder if I’m watching an update of an old classic, or a glittery pornographic film made for little girls.
I could forgive this overly lavish attention to detail if I had any investment in the character of Cinderella. But I don’t. The film’s only moral, stated with ruthless redundancy, is: “Have courage and be kind.” And it gets delivered with the sort of frequency that, if one were to make a drinking game out of it, they’d have alcohol poisoning by the end credits. Seriously. Depending on how one counts each statement, it’s either nine or eleven times in the film.
But I know what the film’s defenders will say: “Wasn’t that the overly simplistic moral to the original Cinderella?” Well, yes. However, it’s a little more complicated than that. True, the original animated Cinderella will never win any awards for its shining feminism:
“Leave the sewing to the women!” one of the mouse girls chirps to the boys.
Yes, God help us if men became involved in fashion design. Apparently Uncle Walt didn’t foresee the rise of The Bravo Channel. Still, the film gets a bit of a bad rap as being an archaic example of early 50’s gender roles. Yes, they’re in there. But those were the times. And while the main character is essentially a slave, her character motivations at least made sense within the context of the story. Ironically, by trying to update this Cinderella by giving her the sort of education and independence the original never had, the reboot actually dumbs her character down to a crumbling pile of glaring inconsistencies.
Remember, the original Cinderella lost her father as a little girl. This gave the film’s humorless, suffocatingly evil version of Lady Tremaine years to work her malevolent sorcery on an impressionable child. Not so in the new film. New Cinderella (Lily James) is clearly on the cusp of adulthood when her father dies. The new Lady Tremaine (played by Cate Blanchett, fresh from the Glenn Close School of Cruella De Vil Scenery Chewing) should have had less to work with. So one wonders how this updated Tremaine, with her tacky tastes and penchant for silly laughs, can’t be outwitted by a girl who – by all outward appearances –is practically a grown adult. The new Tremaine never exudes any real authority. In fact, her oh-so-clever means of enslaving Cinderella relies on a series of passive aggressive plays on Cinderella’s kindness. Essentially, she writes Cinderella out of the picture not because she’s bone chillingly threatening, but because Cinderella surrenders herself like a wet doormat. A bit of a muddled moral there: kindness lands you in the attic.
Of course, in the original, Cinderella works within her means to make friends with the mice. In the context of the 1950 film, they play as metaphors for people in an even lower station of life. There’s a strange, but very touching, Upstairs-Downstairs dynamic to all this. It’s clear they’re all trapped together. And Cinderella goes to great means to look out for them: rescuing them from traps, feeding them, clothing them, and raising them like Willard’s long-lost twin sister. In turn, they actually become her servants – shining her shoes, making her dresses, and helping out at every possible turn. They do this willingly because they love her. It’s a nice counterpoint to the enforced slave labor relationship between the Tremaine and Cinderella. And because the mice can talk and prattle on about how unfair Cinderella is treated, there’s an immediacy to the moral. Kindness begets friends, friends beget help, and help can set you free. In the new film, the mice don’t talk. Any conversations are one sided. Until the uninspired climax, they hardly do a thing. Even the dress-making scene is played for laughs: Cinderella sews herself while the mice mindlessly roll spools of thread on the ground. Oh, so helpful!
Removing the onus of the mice robs the new Cinderella of an outlet for her altruism. So the moral doesn’t really resonate. Not that a movie needs talking mice, but there should’ve been a replacement. Nope. The movie states clearly that Cinderella has no friends. This, in and of itself, is a glaring inconsistency.
In the original film, Tremaine keeps Cinderella ignorant. No reading, riding, outings. Nothing. This time around, Cinderella is well versed in the classics. Why, she even speaks French! Très bien! Far from being isolated, she befriends her family’s servants. When the servants are forced out to find work in the village, Cinderella is still allowed to ride on horseback to fetch vegetables from the same town. There, she has no trouble finding them and catching up. So, she clearly has friends of some sort. And they ask her, quite rightly, just what the hell she’s still doing at home. Her reply? The home has nostalgic value to her, and she doesn’t want to see it run into the ground. After all, she promised her parents she would cherish their home.
I couldn’t make that up if I tried.
I suppose screenwriter Chris Weitz thought he was being incredibly clever for coming up with some sort of excuse. But it’s a lazy justification. First, Cinderella’s stepmother already saw fit to redecorate the home in her own image from day one. Second, it doesn’t stop Cinderella from dropping the house like a live hand-grenade when a palace enters the mix. Finally, what loving parents in their right mind would want their daughter abused for the sake of a home? And with friends in the village, a means to get there, and plenty of book learning, wouldn’t her parents be prouder if she made a new life for herself in peace and happiness?
And there’s the problem. Cinderella’s kindness never comes with a lick of courage.
Most of that stems from the filmmakers’ strange callback to old-school chivalric sexism. For a film that tries so hard to tout Cinderella’s empowerment, the film coddles her like a fine China doll. It’s easy to say “Be kind and have courage.” Even easier to slap a wistful smile on Lily James’ Pollyannish face. Why? Because she never has to face any consequences for her actions. In a very telling scene, Cinderella states, “Kindness is free.” Well, in THIS world it certainly is.
Kindness in the face adversity is strength. But the film softens every blow. Branagh’s idea of showing a heavy work load is dabbing a little soot on her face. Otherwise, she strolls through the farm in an impeccably clean, sky-blue dress like the Virgin Mary on tour through Amish Country. She eats only scraps, but still looks far more radiant than her stepmother and stepsisters. She nonchalantly shoos a cat away to spare the mice. And no one cares. In the original, her rodent rescue program resulted in a laundry list of chores that would make any child stick their head in an oven. The infamous dress-shredding scene from the animated film now boils down to a simple rip of a sleeve and a tear of a ribbon. Looks like an easy fix any two-bit seamstress could handle.
Could she not work up the courage to go anyway? To see, whom she believes, is a mere palace apprentice? This, of course, leads to the inevitable Godmother scene. There, Cinderella gives an old crone a cup of milk – from a can placed conveniently right in front of her. The crone/Godmother notes that it’s nothing, but kindness makes it special. Does it? Because it really required no effort. No consequence. No choice. It was the medieval equivalent of clicking LIKE on a political Facebook meme. In reality, yes, a little kindness can go a long way. But in filmic terms, it becomes nothing more than an arbitrary trope when it literally costs the character nothing. It certainly says nothing about courage.
In fact, this girl is so bereft of courage, she lets her Fairy Godmother ride roughshod over her wish to let the ripped pink dress remain the same. Turns out it was her mother’s dress, and she wanted to feel like her mother was there with her at the ball. The Fairy Godmother – not one to take orders, I guess – makes it completely unrecognizable. And Cinderella doesn’t even bat an eye. Maybe parental attachment only applies to that placeholder of a house.
These inconsistencies then climax in two of the most inexplicable scenes in the movie.
The first occurs when Lady Tremaine concocts a plan to introduce Cinderella to the court and install herself as a shadow queen. Cinderella flat out refuses with the sort of foolishly misplaced gusto that screams, “Please lock me away!” Really, the only thing she didn’t do was hand her stepmother the keys. Right there, from the back of theater, I noticed a flurry of children whispering to their shrugging parents. Kids are far more adept at sensing stupid than we adults give them credit for. And the collective thought bubble above their little heads flashed like neon lights: “Why didn’t Cinderella agree and then turn her stepmother in at the court?” Perhaps the filmmakers balked at letting their saintly martyr lie for a good cause. Yet, that’s exactly what Cinderella did when she claimed that the glass slipper Tremaine found in the attic was “given to her.” It’s a classic Obi-wan Kenobi lie of omission: it’s true from a certain point of view. Couldn’t a clever girl, then, concoct a similar lie? “Yes, stepmother. I’ll let you present me at the court…” Of course, whatever happens afterwards? That’s another story. Wink-wink.
Instead, Tremaine vengefully smashes the slipper, locks Cinderella in the tower, cuts a deal with the Duke, and implies that the conspirators can do whatever they want with the scullery maid. Just to make it clear: this is a death sentence for Cinderella. Or at least imprisonment. Maybe banishment. When the entire kingdom is exhausted of feet to put slippers on, Cinderella will conveniently disappear. So imagine my shock when, days later in film-time, the narrator unloads this priceless tidbit as the royal shoe brigade approaches:
“Cinderella had no idea anyone had come to the house. Nor did she care. For surely no one was there to see HER.”
So this girl remained trapped in the attic for days, or was suspiciously locked up without explanation earlier that afternoon, and yet cares so little for her plight that she can’t even bother to open a window and look outside? Oh yes, there’s a window. A window that the mice open themselves – from the INSIDE – while Cinderella twirls around and sings “Hey dilly lilly!” like Ophelia bouncing off the walls of the rubber room.
I can’t think of a more insidious moral for little girls. Or little boys. Or children of any age. When held against your will by abusive authority figures, don’t bother making yourself aware of your surroundings. Don’t look for a way out. Don’t call for help out an open window. Just retreat into a fantasy world and think of better times. Forget the fact that this takes Cinderella precariously close to finishing her tale like Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” It’s okay, kids! They’ll never break your love of dancing!
Contrast that with the animated film’s harrowing climax. Cinderella is locked away mere minutes before the entourage arrives. She’s in shock. She beats on the door. She cries. She clearly wants out. And when the mice, through sheer Herculean effort, manage to grab the key and are stopped by the cat, she screams for them to summon the dog. And she does so with the sort of zeal that implies, “Throw the damn cat out the window if you have to!”
And that’s exactly what happens.
Here, this new Cinderella had days to figure out a plan. However, she can’t even be bothered to take the simplest, most basic ownership of her own life to look out the driveway? Her stepmother plotted treason. The love of her life could be at stake. Does this not concern her? The original Cinderella at least acted like she cared. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh notes that this new Cinderella is not a standard damsel in distress. I suppose, in a roundabout way, he’s right. Since most damsels would at least have the basic mental synapses to register distress, disgust, anger, or panic. However, while the animated Cinderella screamed bloody murder and used cooperative teamwork with the mice (both male and female rodents, I might add) to free herself, this one prances around like a ballerina figurine screwed atop a wind-up music box. It’s a beautiful display. And that’s it: a display. Something pretty to look at, but completely devoid of simple, common sense.
Eventually, of course, she’s freed. Lo! They hear her cherubic singing, thanks entirely to the minimally impressive efforts of a few mice dangling from a window latch. Whereas the other Cinderella rushed down in a flurry and produced the other slipper herself, the reboot places all the action on the Prince. He hears her. She’s led to him. He produces the slipper.
And she lived happily, LUCKILY, ever after – without even breaking a sweat.
In the end, the film’s unfocused script and direction paint the new Cinderella as a classic example of book-smart and street-dumb. It’s one thing to tell a flimsy fairy tale about a tortured little girl who was brainwashed and browbeaten into a world robbed of all hope, power, and escape. It’s quite another to tell a fairy tale about an empowered teenager who willingly surrenders herself to such abuse, and then can’t even bother to raise a simple fuss from the gloomy trap she clumsily waltzed into. Make no mistake, the original Cinderella was a victim. But that was something beyond her control. This new Cinderella is a victim by choice. I’m sure the filmmakers had good intentions buried in there somewhere, but by trying to empower Cinderella with half-baked ideas that never follow through, they did just the opposite.
I don’t demand that empowered females be sword-waving Aria Starks, or Ripleys, or Sarah Conners. The film didn’t need Drew Barrymore busting out of a castle exclaiming, “You? Rescue ME?” Too often, modern sensibilities assume empowered females must be essentially men in all but genitalia – wielding guns, kicking butts, and taking names. Kindness and courage can be great strengths. Gentleness wields its own strange power. But that’s no excuse for lousy storytelling. A kind soul can open a window. A courageous soul doesn’t have to settle when offered an out. There’s no need to coddle a character to the point that their indifference would make a lobotomized sloth look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
One wonders what the original Cinderella would make of all this? After all, the new Cinderella enjoyed freedoms and opportunities the original only dreamed of. And yet, to what effect? I can only imagine the ignorant, animated scullery maid from 1950 sighing at her live-action counterpart prancing blissfully across the attic – while the Royal courtiers and wicked stepfamily play their Game of Slippers downstairs.
“Girl,” she’d groan with a roll of her eyes. “You don’t deserve it.”
With any luck, the live-action mice would nod their heads in agreement and abandon ship.
But that sort of ending doesn’t sell dresses.
Rob Walker is co-writer of the popular Nostalgia Critic web series and serves as the Creative Content Officer of ChannelAwesome.com.